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Seven Things You May Not Know About Breast Cancer, and Should

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I am an eight-year survivor of breast cancer. Thankfully, I am healthy. When October rolls around, and the pink party starts for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I contemplate what it means to be a survivor, and I think back to when I was diagnosed and underwent a double mastectomy in September 2009, and what a mind-numbing out- of -body- experience it felt like. Your body and your life are altered forever.

During October, news reports splash with the latest research, survivor stories or a celebrity revealing she has been recently diagnosed and her message to others. There are pink product promotions, pink fashions and accessories developed and “drink pink” parties to raise awareness and funds for various worthy charities.  Celebrity survivors come out of the pink closest to take a stand, and pink pep rallies start the morning shows.  Pink is a happy color, and survivorship is celebrated.

But it’s no party for someone who has been recently diagnosed, who is in treatment or who may be living with metastatic breast cancer. It’s a painful wake-up call with many decisions to face, and it can be emotionally, physically and financially devastating for many women for a long time.  So, pardon me if I don’t come off particularly rosy and festive this month and eager to promote your pink products and events.  I don’t wear rose- colored glasses when it comes to breast cancer, especially when one in eight women is still diagnosed, and the meter hasn’t really moved on deaths from the disease which hover around 40,000 a year (40,610 women in the U.S. are expected to die from breast cancer in 2017). The good news is deaths from breast cancer have steadily been decreasing since 1989, thanks to early detection.

I am more about a prep rally than a pep rally. I use my own experience and voice to help educate women about risk reduction; support women who have been diagnosed; and promote confident lifestyle choices for a healthy survivorship.  Breast cancer awareness should be a 365-day-a-year awareness effort and not only splashed on the pages of an October magazine cover or TV news programs when a celebrity announces her diagnosis or when the NFL players wears pink shoes.

I am constantly amazed that, despite all the “awareness” out there, many people are still uninformed about some very essential things about breast cancer.

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Here are a few facts about breast cancer that many people still do not realize:

1. Breast cancer affects both women and men.  Breast cancer is equal opportunity in the gender department, although men have a statistically lower lifetime risk.  One in 8 women will be diagnosed as compared to one in 1000 men (American Cancer Society)

2. Breast cancer can occur at any age. While the average age for diagnosis is 55 to 60, breast cancer affects women of all ages. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),  about 11% of all new cases of breast cancer in the United States are found in women younger than 45 years of age. Breast cancers in young women can be aggressive since they may not have been detected early. There are no mandatory guidelines for screening women for breast cancer before age 50. That’s why it is important for all women to know the physical signs that something may be wrong and to manually examine their breasts regularly (see point 5).

Here are the current American Cancer Society guidelines for breast cancer screening: 

Women ages 40 to 44 should have the choice to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms (x-rays of the breast) if they wish to do so. Women age 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year. Women 55 and older should switch to mammograms every 2 years, or can continue yearly screening. (link)
3. Breast cancer is not always hereditary. According to BreastCancer.org only 5-10 percent of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary (link). The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) notes that  33% of breast cancers in the U.S. never have to happen if individuals changed their habits to: maintain a healthy weight, stop smoking, reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption, exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet. (link). I will address diet and breast cancer in more detail in a follow up post.
4. A family history of breast cancer does not mean you will have the disease. But, know your family history for all cancers.  Hereditary breast cancers are based on genetic mutations that some family members may have and others may not. I had no family history of breast cancer, so my diagnosis was a complete surprise. After reviewing my family history for other hereditary cancers such as pancreatic and prostate cancer with my oncologist, I chose to undergo genetic testing and found I carried the BRCA2 genetic mutation. If you have a family history of any cancer and concerns, speak with your medical practitioner about genetic testing which specifically looks for genetic mutations that could increase your risk. If you test positive for one of the mutations, carefully weigh all your options before rushing into any pre-emptive surgeries.
5. A lump in the breast is not the only sign of breast cancer.  If you experience any of the following changes in your breast, consider seeing your doctor. These signs do not mean you necessarily have breast cancer, but you need to be pragmatic about your health.
  • lump, bump or thickening mass on or around breast and chest area
  • swelling, warmth or redness of the breast
  • dimpling, indentation or puckering of the breast skin
  • change in size of shape of breast
  • inverted or retracted nipple
  • nipple discharge
  • itchy, scaly skin or sores around nipple or breast
  • pain in a specific area of the breast that will not go away

Check out this graphic from Susan G Komen  on warning signs.

6. Breast cancer is treatable but risk of recurrence or a development of a new breast cancer is a reality that survivors face even after surgeries and treatment. According to the American Cancer Society:

Compared to women who have never been diagnosed with breast cancer, women with a history of breast cancer are about 1.5 times more likely to develop a new breast cancer. The risk is higher if the diagnosis was at a younger age. Women diagnosed with early onset breast cancer (age <40) have almost a 4.5-fold increased risk of subsequent breast cancer. (link)

That’s why a healthy diet, exercise and weight management are important along with regular medical checkups  and exams with your primary care physician as well as your breast oncologist (survivors).

7. Breast cancer is not a death sentence. The survivorship prognosis is better than ever. Early detection is important to diagnose breast cancer at an early stage, thus underscoring the importance of mammograms and self-examination.  I also know many fearless, fabulous women living with metastatic breast cancer who’ve beaten the odds. Here are the stats from the American Cancer Society website:

The numbers below come from the National Cancer Institute’s SEER database, looking at people diagnosed with breast cancer between 2007 and 2013.

  • The 5-year relative survival rate for women with stage 0 or stage I breast cancer is close to 100%.
  • For women with stage II breast cancer, the 5-year relative survival rate is about 93%.
  • The 5-year relative survival rate for stage III breast cancers is about 72%. But often, women with these breast cancers can be successfully treated.
  • Breast cancers that have spread to other parts of the body are more difficult to treat and tend to have a poorer outlook. Metastatic, or stage IV breast cancers, have a 5-year relative survival rate of about 22%. Still, there are often many treatment options available for women with this stage of breast cancer.

Remember, these survival rates are only estimates – they can’t predict what will happen to any individual person. We understand that these statistics can be confusing and may lead you to have more questions. Talk to your doctor to better understand your specific situation

Read more on this here: LINK

In my next post I will address breast cancer and lifestyle.

 

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